Because it was so cheap, we learned to flagrantly waste it. Remember those scenes in American Graffiti where kids just mindlessly drive up and down the streets—screeching tires, hurling insults, honking horns, arranging drag races, and trying to position themselves for some possible sexual stimulation? Well that isn't exactly how I remember it because I was living in North Dakota during part of my high school years. Yes we drove up and down the streets trying to get the girls to join our rides. But our big selling point wasn't how fast our cars were (because the roads were covered in ice and snow anyway) but how good was the heater. In the winter it was often colder than -30°F (-35°C) so this was no small matter. We even had a different way to prove our macho. Someone with a really good heater would load up his car with the unsuspecting in the back seat. We'd cruise for awhile with the heat cranked up until people started shedding their heavy coats. Then the driver would go out on the highway and accelerate to at least 60 mph (100 kph) when the cry would go up "Freeze Out" and everyone would roll down the windows. Amazing how cold it got in just seconds!
Everyone could afford to live so ridiculously because energy was so cheap. Cheap energy drove design decisions—the most important of which was urban sprawl. Soon energy became a part of everything we bought—especially food. So when the oil embargo of 1973-74 doubled energy prices, the prosperity brought by cheap energy just went poof. The Keynesian economists who thought their brilliance was responsible for the global economic miracle, saw many of their presumptions go poof as well. There are few recorded instances of a profession going from running things to irrelevance is so short a period of time.
It is possible we may soon see such a sea change again. Cheap solar cells promise an almost infinite supply of cheap energy like back in the 1960s. Cheap energy changes everything! For example, say the climate really has changed the water supplies so significantly that California needs a crash program of desalination plants. Up until now, the cost of energy has made these things available only for specialized needs. By contrast, if energy gets cheap again, California could build so many desalination plants they could even supply (some) agriculture.
So anyway, here are a couple of essays intended to think deeply about the new energy strategies. One postulates that such innovations as LED light bulbs will lead to so much demand destruction, utility companies are at risk. I am pretty sure that while demand for power to run lighting is mathematically certain to dive, there are plenty of other end users to pick up the slack. This is especially true if we intend to electrify transportation and water purification. The second essay is an interesting exercise where an academic figures out that California could eventually replace all the power supplied by fossil fuels with renewables. While this analysis is really interesting and useful, it leaves out the very real problem that there are many things that now require fossil fuels to operate (heavy trucks, farm machinery, airlines, etc.) Getting all this equipment to run on electricity is going to require an explosion of innovation.
It's a start!
Beyond Energy EfficiencyWe’re not just reducing demand for electricity—we’re destroying it.
By Daniel Gross July 30, 2014
The Wall Street Journal had a good front-page article this week about the challenges facing the nation’s utilities. For the longest time, electricity sales and consumption went hand in hand with economic growth. In the last several years, not so much. Electricity retail sales peaked at 3.77 trillion kilowatt-hours in 2008, dropped in 2008 and 2010, recovered a bit in 2011, and fell in each of the next two years. The 2013 total of 3.69 trillion kilowatt-hours was down 2 percent from 2008.
The culprits are many: changes in the economy (less industry, more services), higher prices and low wages pushing people to cut usage, more people and companies generating their own electricity on their rooftops, and a renewed focus on efficiency. I’d add another factor, one that the Journal underplays: Utilities are confronting the prospect of significant and widespread demand destruction.
Demand destruction is different from energy efficiency. Efficiency is when you decide to use a little less of a resource than you did last year (turn out the lights, drive a more efficient car) or on a seasonal basis (turn down the heat during the winter). That can be a bummer for a provider. But in many instances, it is part of the business model. Many states require regulated utilities to run, fund, or offer energy efficiency programs.
So strategic demand reduction and management are part of the industry’s operating system; demand destruction is not. Demand destruction occurs when you eliminate or substantially reduce the need for the resource on a near-permanent basis. Somebody trading in a Chevrolet Malibu for a Nissan Leaf won’t be buying any gasoline for the next 10 years. Replacing a 30-year-old air conditioner with a more efficient new one will significantly reduce the power associated with cooling. Innovations in technology and business models can hasten the process of demand destruction—think of how the advent of iTunes cut into the sales of CDs. And there are signs that this is beginning to happen with electricity.
The price of solar panels has come down dramatically in recent years, and new business models, such as SolarCity’s leases, have substantially reduced the costs associated with installing rooftop electricity generation systems. As a percentage of overall electricity production, solar is minuscule. But each panel represents a bit of demand destruction. And when a company puts solar panels on the roof of a big-box retailer, as Ikea has done on 40 of its U.S. stores, or as Walmart has done (89 megawatts of capacity at 215 locations as of last fall), it is effectively destroying a decent chunk of demand over the 20-year life of the system.
When a lot of people decide to go solar in the same city or area, it can add up. Hawaii’s utility publishes cool daily charts showing the amount of solar energy being produced in its service areas each day by utility companies and by off-the-grid households. Here’s Hawaiian Electric’s “Renewable Watch” for Oahu, home to Honolulu. The dark blue line is the “net system load,” and the squiggly light blue line represents the “gross system load.” The difference between those two is the amount of energy being created by “behind the meter” sources; i.e., home- and company-based rooftop solar systems. In the middle of the day, about 150 megawatts, or about 14 percent of the total electricity being used in Oahu, is being produced by sources other than Hawaiian Electric. For the utility, that’s a significant amount of demand destruction. Last year alone California added 700 megawatts of behind–the-meter solar capacity, compared with 2,145 megawatts of utility solar capacity.
There’s another form of electricity in which demand destruction is starting to become evident: lighting. An LED bulb uses between 70 and 80 percent less electricity to produce the same amount of light as an incandescent light bulb. That differential has proven irresistible to large companies and organizations. Starting in 2010, Macy’s Corp. began replacing traditional light bulbs with LEDs in more than 800 Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s stores. By 2012, having changed some 1.1 million bulbs, the company reported that it had slashed the use of energy related to lighting by up to 73 percent. Los Angeles has completed its project of installing 140,000 LEDs in street lights, cutting energy use associated with that lighting by 62.9 percent. Detroit is in the midst of a program to install 64,000 LEDs as streetlights. (The city’s dashboard tallies weekly progress.) Those are significant drops. And there’s no reason to think that other big users of power—governments, universities, companies, landlords—won’t be doing the same in coming years. more
How California Could Power Itself Using Nothing but RenewablesBY JOHN UPTON • July 31, 2014
We don’t need fossil fuels.
An avalanche of studies is concluding that the world could entirely power itself with renewable energy in the coming decades, doing away with fossil fuels and the pollution they produce—while slowing global warming. Mark Jacobson’s name has been at the top of many of academia’s contributions to this research.
“We think it’s technically and economically feasible to convert the world’s entire energy into wind, solar and water,” Jacobson says. “The main problems are social and political.”
Five years ago, the Stanford engineering professor explained in Scientific American that the world could install four million wind turbines, a couple billion rooftop photovoltaic arrays, plus battery packs and other energy installations to eliminate fossil fuels. The plan was refined, then described in a 2011 Energy paper, along with an Energy Policy paper focused on the energy supply in the United States. Then, last summer, he co-authored an Energy Policy paper that focused on New York.
“We figured it would be more pragmatic at the state level,” he says.
That paper described a plan for phasing out the use of fossil fuels in the Empire State by 2030 through wind, solar, and water power, such as hydroelectricity, wave energy, and tidal power. The plan would reduce fuel costs to zero yet boost economic development, producing more green jobs than would be lost from the fossil-fuel industry.
For Jacobson’s latest intellectual chef-d’œuvre, he co-authored a recent paper in Energy describing how California could capitalize on its abundant sunshine, on- and off-shore winds, tides, waves, and geothermal heat to abolish fossil fuels. Electric cars and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles would be recharged using the renewable electricity supplies.
Under the plan, all new energy generation in the Golden State from 2020 onward would be from renewable sources. By 2030, 80 to 85 percent of the state’s current energy supply would be replaced with clean sources. And starting in 2050, the state wouldn’t need to burn another drip of oil, hunk of coal, or molecule of natural gas—and the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant wouldn’t be needed.
The following chart shows how much space the projects would occupy. The little red dots show space taken up by wind turbines; the blue and green around them show total wind farm acreage, which could also be used for farming and fishing and the like. Rooftop solar would go on existing buildings, but other photovoltaic and concentrated solar power would require new land, as would the geothermal facilities.
Jacobson’s team calculated that their California plan would create hundreds of thousands more jobs than it would sacrifice, and it would annually save more than 10,000 lives and $100 billion in health care costs (expenses which are now generated by pollution). The 603 gigawatts of new renewable energy facilities would cost $1.1 trillion, but those costs would be more than offset through climate benefits and fuel savings.
The next step? Jacobson is planning to publish a paper outlining how all other states could do something similar. more